COVID-19: What Does it Mean For the Indo Pacific?

As the world reels with the catastrophic reality of the coronavirus pandemic—overwhelmed health-care systems, painful numbers of deaths and the uncertainty of economic revival—the anger of many is directed at the Communist Party of China (CCP). Governments have vowed to rethink their relationship with China, and individuals and organisations have sought financial redressals from Beijing, infuriated with a string of cover-ups and disinformation that allowed the disease to spread globally.

Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan

Faced with the world’s anger, not only has China been re-writing the history of the pandemic, but it has also been carving out an opportunity to emerge out of this crisis as the ultimate winner. Beijing has been presenting an image (likely, falsely) of relative strength—in sharp contrast to the morbid realities of virus-stricken powerful western democracies. In addition to portraying itself as a victim of the world’s bigotry, China has been advancing its (unsuccessful) “mask diplomacy” to project itself as the world’s responsible saviour. Beijing’s opportunism and uncertainties about the future of the rest have got many to spell frantic prophecies about the birth of new world order.

However, strategists have been trying to understand China’s impact on the world order for some years now. This has lead to the development of the Indo Pacific concept and its adoption by several countries including Japan, India, the US, Australia, France, and the ASEAN member states. With varying degrees of participation, Indo Pacific countries have been cooperating to enhance infrastructure connectivity and their maritime presence as China undermines the rules-based order here, threatening the stability and prosperity of this networked region by pursuing grey-zone coercion tactics in contested waterways, buying off strategic leverage against debts and backing these efforts with large-scale influence operations.

Despite the disruptions brought about by the pandemic, China did find the time to continue this aggressive posturing in the Indo pacific. The last few weeks saw Vietnam and Japan face repeated disturbances with China in the South China Sea and the East China Sea respectively. With US presence in the region reduced due to the ongoing crisis, a carrier strike group of the People’s Liberation Army-Navy transited through the Miyako Strait near Okinawa in Japan and north of Taiwan, alerting both Tokyo and Taipei. In fact, since the outbreak began, China has been carrying out increased naval and air drills around Taiwan. In January, when the coronavirus horror unfolded in Wuhan, China was sending research ships to the Indian Ocean Region.

An H-6 bomber of the Chinese air force near a Taiwan F-16 in a February 10 photo provided by Taiwan Ministry of National Defense [Taiwan Ministry of National Defense via Reuters]

This only points towards the need to sustain cooperation in the Indo Pacific to deter China from exploiting the situation to alter the regional order even further. With the economic cost of prolonged national lockdowns and tight budgets catering to the ongoing public health emergency, the ability of these countries to continue financing their Indo Pacific visions has been severely affected. Besides, the outbreak has directly impacted countries’ power projection capabilities with the US and France reporting hundreds of corona-positive cases onboard two of their aircraft carriers. Major naval exercises including the 30-country MILAN 2020 have also been postponed, affecting efforts to enhance military to military interoperability. Moreover, the defence industry has been directing its resources towards the manufacturing of vital medical equipment.

However, despite these legitimate budgetary and logistical constraints, these countries are holding on to their commitments in the Indo Pacific. Some smaller bilateral naval operations have gone ahead as scheduled—this includes those between the US Navy and Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force in the East China Sea and the Andaman Sea, and joint patrols of the Indian Navy and the French Navy from the Reunion Islands. Key equipment purchases and defence modernisation efforts are also continuing—albeit at an expectedly slower rate. Signalling that the region would not be left alone to China’s refashioning whims, the US Indo Pacific Command recently submitted a request for additional funding of USD 20 Billion.

Given the national security ramifications of this outbreak, a major test of the partnership between Indo Pacific countries is their cooperation in managing the pandemic itself. Here, they have been stepping up their humanitarian assistance in the region, challenging China’s monopoly over the narrative of coronavirus relief. In South Asia, India has been shipping medical supplies to Bhutan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, and is expected to send rapid response teams to Kathmandu and Malé soon. It has also kept emergency medical teams and two naval ships on standby for regional assistance and has included the US and “friendly” countries in South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region in its list of 55 countries for which it has lifted the export ban on the coveted hydroxychloroquine drug. The US has committed a relatively large sum of USD 500 million in global humanitarian assistance out of which some is directed towards South East Asia, South Asia and Pacific Island countries. The Pacific Islands have seen fervent attempts by Beijing to compete for soft power gains against Australia. In response, Canberra has promised the creation of a ‘humanitarian corridor’ to ensure unrestricted flow of food and medical supplies to its ‘near abroad’. Vietnam and Taiwan have also been key regional leaders supplying emergency shipments of face masks to affected countries.

Taiwan’s government has donated 300,000 face masks to the Philippines as part of its new pledge to give 6 million masks to regional countries to help them fight the new coronavirus pandemic/ Image: MOFA Taiwan

In addition to extending humanitarian assistance, the US, Japan, Australia, India, Vietnam, South Korea, and New Zealand have set up a virtual COVID-19 policy coordination mechanism. A group which glaringly excludes China, it has been unofficially dubbed the “Quad-Plus”—in reference to the group of India, Japan, Australia and the US that is viewed unfavourably in Beijing as a containment plot. The group’s efforts to coordinate a response for the “Indo Pacific region” to a pandemic that spread to the world from PRC signals collective resolve to continue pushing against Beijing’s attempts to challenge the regional order.

While surely China’s own behaviour—laced with aggression and unconvincing attempts at deflection— is playing a role in keeping Beijing from turning the coronavirus crisis into an opportunity, all is not lost on others resisting China’s plans. In the Indo Pacific, not only have countries signalled their intent to maintain defence commitments, but they have also stepped up their cooperation to augment the region’s capacity to fight the pandemic. With companies and governments mulling moving manufacturing out of China, it remains to be seen how the post-COVID Indo Pacific economic order will be shaped.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Jyotsna Mehra

Jyotsna Mehra is a Consulting Editor at The Kootneeti on Indo Pacific and Geopolitics. She's also a Pacific Forum Young Leader, researching India’s rise and foreign policy in the Indo Pacific. Jyotsna graduated with an MSc in Modern South Asian Studies from the University of Oxford in 2018. She can be reached at [email protected] || Twitter: @Jyotsna Mehra

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